10 Commandments for Writers

James Scott Bell

Back when I started teaching writing to others, in a moment of what can only be described as great hubris, I jotted down 10 Commandments for Writers. Recently I dug up the document and took a fresh look. And you know what? I think they’re still pretty good. I’ve tweaked them a bit for updating purposes, but they remain essentially the same as when I first wrote them. And while I don’t have them engraved on stone tablets – yet – I offer them here for your perusal:
1. Thou Shalt write a certain number of words every week
This is the first, and greatest, commandment. If you write to a quota and  hold yourself to it, sooner than you think you’ll have a full length novel. 

(UPDATE: I used to advocate a daily quota, but I changed it to weekly because inevitably you miss days, or life intrudes, and you can run yourself down for “missing” your quota. So set up a weekly quota, divide it by days, and if you miss one day make it up on the others).
So important is this commandment that I posted a video on it.
2. Thou Shalt write passionate first drafts

Don’t edit yourself during your first drafts. The writing of it is partly an act of discovering your story, even if you outline. Write hot. Put your heart into it. Let your writer’s mind run free. I edit my previous day’s work and then move on. At 20k words I “step back” to see if I have a solid foundation, shore it up if I don’t, then move on to the end. There’s magic in momentum.


3. Thou Shalt make trouble for thy Lead
The engine of a good story is fueled by the threat to the Lead character. Keep turning up the heat. Make things harder. Simple three act structure: Get your Lead up a tree, throw things at him, get him down.
4. Thou Shalt put a stronger opposing force in the Lead’s way
The opposition character must be stronger than the Lead. More power, more experience, more resources. Otherwise the reader won’t worry. You want them to worry. Hitchcock always said the strength of his movies came from the strength and cunning of the villains. But note the opposition doesn’t have to be a “bad guy.” Think of Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive.
5. Thou Shalt get thy story running from the first paragraph
Start with a character, confronted with change or threat or challenge. This is the opening “disturbance” and that’s what will hook readers. It doesn’t have to be something “big.” Anything that sends a ripple through the “ordinary world” will do.
6. Thou Shalt create surprises
Avoid the predictable! Always make a list of several avenues your scenes and story might take, then choose something that makes sense but also surprises the reader.
7. Thou Shalt make everything contribute to the story
Don’t go off on tangents that don’t have anything to do with the characters and what they want in the story. Stay as direct as a laser beam.
(UPDATE: This one seems self-evident now, but at the time I was seeing manuscripts with scenes written for their style, not their substance. Another way to put this is the old advice to be ready to “kill your darlings.”)
8. Thou Shalt cut out all the dull parts
Be ruthless in revision. Cut out anything that slows the story down. No trouble, tension or conflict is dull. At the very least, something tense inside a character.
9. Thou Shalt develop Rhino skin
Don’t take rejection or criticism personally. Learn from criticism and move on. Perseverance is the golden key to a writing career.
10. Thou Shalt never stop learning, growing and writing for the rest of thy life
Writing is growth. We learn about ourselves, we discover more about life, we use our creativity, we gain insights. At the same time, we study. Brain surgeons keep up on the journals, why should writers think they don’t need to stay up on the craft? If I learn just one thing that helps me as a writer, it’s worth it.
So there’s my ten. Comments welcome. Or maybe you have an Eleventh Commandment you’d like to add?

Elmore Leonard’s Rules

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I borrowed Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing the other day from the library – although I had read many of his rules before, I realized I hadn’t actually read the whole (albeit very short) book. Since we have been doing our first page critiques, I thought it was probably a good time to highlight his rules – many of which we have already discussed in our critiques – and to also fess up to my own shortcomings…

Here are his 10 rules…
1. Never open a book with weather
2. Avoid prologues
3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue
4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…
5. Keep your exclamation points under control
6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose”
7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly
8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters
9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things
10. Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip

While these are excellent rules, I have to confess to breaking at least half of these in my own work. I have used a prologue and (mea culpa) even the word “suddenly” on the odd occasion.

As a writer of historical fiction I also admit to giving pretty detailed descriptions of places, things and people in order to give the reader insight into the time period. However, the hardest rules for me, are rule number 3 and 4. While I certainly try and avoid overusing adverbs and bizarre speech handles such as “asseverated” I find when I try and limit my dialogue to using only “said”, it becomes stilted and hollow. My solution has been to try and limit my adverb use and to highlight gestures, actions etc. to provide appropriate texture to the scene – but still, I fear my dialogue drafts are way more ‘flowery’ than Elmore would like:) As part of my editing process I am extra vigilant when it comes to this rule, but also equally aware that stripping my work down too much saps it of its color. It’s a balancing act, as with most things in writing.

So what about you? Which of these rules have you broken in your own work?

Ten Rules for Writing Fiction

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Inspired by Elmore Leonard’s list, The UK newspaper The Guardian recently surveyed a number of established writers on their ten rules for writing fiction. The results were inspiring, funny as well as practical and I thought I’d share my ten favorites with you.

  1. The first 12 years are the worst. (Ann Enright)
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down. (Neil Gaiman)
  3. Keep a light, hopeful heart. But expect the worst. (Joyce Carol Oates)
  4. Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious. (PD James)
  5. Don’t romanticize your “vocation”. You can either write good sentences or you can’t. There is no “writer’s lifestyle”. All that matters is what you leave on the page. (Zadie Smith)
  6. If you have to read, to cheer yourself up read biographies of writers who went insane. (Colm Toibin)
  7. Do not place a photograph of your favorite author on your desk, especially if the author is one of the famous ones who committed suicide. (Roddy Doyle)
  8. Don’t sit down in the middle of the woods. If you’re lost in the plot or blocked, retrace your steps to where you went wrong. Then take the other road. And/or change the person. Change the tense. Change the opening page. (Margaret Atwood)
  9. Try to think of others’ good luck as encouragement to yourself. (Richard Ford)
  10. The two most depressing words in the English language are “literary fiction.” (David Hare)

If you had to write your top ten rules what would be number 1 on your list?